By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 13, 2010
Sean Van Vleet is a Chicago-based musician, songwriter, and lead singer of the alternative-rock band Empires. In March, Empires released their highly-anticipated sophomore effort Bang and have spent much of 2010 on the road in support of the release, with stops at SXSW, Verve Music Festival, and CMJ Music Fest. MTV.com called the album “great, all ethereal and doomy like the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club or the Black Angels, but with a little bit of My Chemical Romance snarl thrown in for good measure.” Alternative Press said the band has “set about doing this right. It’s a sentiment reinforced by these sterling alt-pop tracks boasting delicious symmetry of texture and tension.” Empires recently put out their first music video for the song Bang and are set to release a brand new 7″ vinyl in January 2011. For more information, please visit www.weareempires.com.
I know how a writer experiences Resistance. How does a musician experience it? What form(s) does it take for you? When does it hit you? How powerful is it?
The only time I’m not hindered by Resistance is when I’m dead asleep. The second I start to wake up, there it is, almost uglier than the night before. I think it’s the same tempest a writer, comedian, or any artist deals with.
One difference for me is that as a singer, when I write, there’s a certain physical feeling I like to create in order for me to perform my ideas. I’m not as cerebral as an author, and melodies come from something like a vibration. I’m an anxious person, so it’s probably not as hard for me to reach that state as it may be for others. Every day, I prefer to kick off by finding something to resonate in me. Whether it’s a song I love, coffee, a great conversation, a fight . . . anything can be useful. I guess it’s sorta like pulling a cord on a lawn mower.
The transition from writer to singer is the point where I collide with resistance head on. It’s one hell of an impact because writing is my true passion, and I sometimes feel that singing is like a job. It takes a clash of the two for me to effectively do what I do. If I just wrote all day and I never sang the melodies, I’d be in my room the rest of my life. Unheard. It takes discipline to create a “space” for writing and performing to occupy. When the ring is only occupied by one, there’s no fight, and no song. So I win the battle just by fighting. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Did it require a leap of faith for you to decide, “I’m gonna quit my day job and play rock n’ roll full-time?” Did you have to go through a process to get to that place?
Yes, a three year process . . . and it’s a process I’m going to have to go through again. These days, with the lucrative music recording business of yore coming apart at the seams, bands are actually having to work to make their money! And we do it by being on the road. Nobody buys music anymore . . . which in some respect is an inspiring change. If you want to support an act, see them live every time they’re in town. With this mentality, there’s a pressure to keep creating and improving the live act, or you will have to settle for a career in dreaming.
We spent about half of this year on the road touring, and now we’re home. So the day jobs are back. But I’m still a professional by way of virtue. I have an important record to write, so it’s my priority! I have a job serving coffee. It pays the bills, the people I work for are great about keeping the door open whenever I’m in town. I work strictly to make ends meet so I have time to make what really matters.
What was your darkest moment, your moment of most supreme self-doubt so far? Was there an “All Is Lost” moment for you on your evolution to being where you are right now?
You’re asking me about “The Dip!”
Seth Godin defined this in his book by that title. That dude nailed it. As a writer, I’m digging my way out of a pretty musty trench, where I sat for a while feeling sorry for myself for not being as successful as I felt I deserved. I was lucky because I got over myself pretty quickly. I adapted to the mentality that accepting a role as an artist is like enrolling in an endless (and often frustrating) education, and not about the financial pay off, which may or may never come. This is a difficult thing to accept, but it was extremely liberating when I was able to sort of shed the shackles anchoring me to concerns about success. When you’re free, you can start getting good at what you do. You have to make the choice to be ruthlessly devoted to your work.
I’m unapologetically ruthless now, and when you’re ruthless you’re without pity. So, while you’re still weary towards the struggle to get there, you don’t pity yourself, and you learn how to skillfully attack in your art.
Do you still experience doubts that you’ve chosen the right path?
I’d lie if I said absolutely not. I fall on my face sometimes. The music world can be overwhelming. But I used to grapple with doubt much more frequently than I do now. I’ve reached a point where I can answer the “deathbed” question. If I were on it now, I think I’d go easier than if I were on a different path. I feel that I’m in the midst of an important mission. If I’m delusional, then delusion’s a gift. I’m madly in love with what I do.
Where does yourself-and-the-band exist in the overall contour of your life? Is there your “real life”—and the band is on the side? Or is this adventure central to your life?
Writing music will always be at the center of my life. It’s how I critique, understand, and ultimately enjoy this world. Right now, the band is a vehicle for all involved. Maybe the end result is a career with one another. I can’t be sure yet. All I know is that we’re working our asses off, and there’s a lot to be said for it. Evolving in a band that I strongly care about has been challenging, but it’s also been the most rewarding endeavor of my life. It continues to take me over in new ways. I’ve learned from one of my bandmates that if you ever have a back up plan, you will never make it. I believe this. I’ve developed tunnel vision as a result. I’ve been through school, and now that I understand my passion, I’ve been heading down a path where all my previous education is simply a foundation under who I am, and not the building blocks to my future.
I have a life outside of music for those I love, but I will say . . . they are the most understanding people on earth.
Do you see yourself as on a journey? If so, from what to what?
The BIG journey I think will always be a mystery to me. I know in The War of Art, you refer to inspiration as a gift from “The Muse.” I completely accept that. I feel I only have power over my day to day journey, which is one filled with a ton of work, and if I’m fortunate, a little inspiration to boot . . .
The music industry is changing. How much of that played into your release of your first album as a free download? How are you reaching out to fans outside traditional channels?
The music industry has completely crumbled. In 2007, the band Radiohead released an album called “In Rainbows” in an industry-shattering way. Their longstanding record deal was up so they digitally self-released the album via their website. The kicker was the “pay what you want” option when purchasing the album, allowing people to put a price on the record.
As an utterly unknown band, using the Radiohead platform, we threw our first record, “Howl” up for free in 2008. For our band, it was a decision influenced by our guitar player, Tom Conrad, who was avidly keeping up with the tumultuous roller coaster ride the industry was on at that time. The result has been over 70,000 downloads worldwide to date. We were (and still are) shocked to say the least.
The Internet gives you the opportunity these days to be omnipresent. If you have a stellar product, it’s a great thing. One of the most exciting things about the music business right now is the amount of music that’s out there. The internet has invited an over-saturation to occur. What this has done is taken mediocrity out of the race toward success. People have the power to choose the music kingdom. Only great music gets to the top and stays there. This only pushes me harder. If something’s good, people will talk. The business now thrives on what people are saying. The industry once had an almighty voice, but it’s gone hoarse.
How do your songs come to you?
I’ve gotten better and better at stumbling onto something over the years. And that’s all I really know. I put my time in, and slowly ideas accumulate and start connecting. I wish I was some sort of mysterious songwriting machine like some of the greats appear to be, but I’m not. Far from it, actually. I can give you a little insight as to the process I went through for our song “Spit the Dark”, which is one of my most vivid writing memories:
The song was written in the midst of my biggest single attack on Resistance yet. I hunkered down in my brutally cold (literally heatless), rat-infested apartment in the middle of winter, and set out to finish a record’s worth of material before I left my room . . . even for a damn sandwich. I was high on the inspiration of heartbreak, and infused with an understanding on artistic endeavor from my first read through of The War of Art. I went at it with the blind fury of something new and passionate. And, are you ready? One song survived! And it’s “Spit the Dark.” So that one’s special to me.
I actually snagged my process from yours in WOA. I wake up, drink coffee, and “clock in.” I try not to drag ass into “the office.” I’ve got my laptop, recorders, pens and paper. My phone is a huge source of Resistance for me. If I’m disciplined enough I can turn it off. Although I usually rationalize it into the equation somehow. And I work. If I told people how much time I put into this, they would listen to the songs and shake their head. The product is evolving into proof. It’s just not there yet. I’m not a natural artist by any means, but I work my ass off. And that’s my process.
Last night I was talking to my good buddy about a recent problem I realized I have. I’m becoming too time conscious as if this were a real “9-to-5er.” I take breaks and after 30 minutes I head back to work like there would be a repercussion if I didn’t. If I start to stall at 7 hrs and 15 min, I sit there day dreaming until it’s time to “go home.” Maybe it’s an addiction to discipline, however in every other area of life, I suffer from not enough.
If you were advising a young, aspiring musician and could only tell him one thing to help him out, what would that one thing be?
Write for yourself, get damn good at it, and the hell with what anyone thinks. That’s the only way to be authentic. I think it’s a blessing to develop in obscurity. The truth is, I am only just now learning that myself . . . Stay in the game, kids.